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Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill

Vintage, 1999 (Sinclair Stevenson, 1993)


Rebecca has recently been in my mind following last year’s Netflix adaptation, starring Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and the since-disgraced Armie Hammer. Brilliantly written and ahead of its time genre-wise, Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece was both the original “upmarket commercial” and psychological suspense novel. I’m not usually a fan of sequels unless the author has set out to conceive a series, but the combination of such eminent voices as Daphne du Maurier and Susan Hill proved irresistible.


The nameless protagonist of Rebecca is a strange, characterless presence about whom the reader knows very little, and is none the wiser at the end of the book. The opportunity to get to know her better and root for her character to develop is enticing, especially when coupled with Beryl Bainbridge’s quote “Splendid … a very good ghost story” on the cover. Susan Hill is nothing if not the master of the ghost story, and in this regard the manifestation of the murdered Rebecca offers one of biggest opportunities in literature.


Unfortunately, the character doesn’t develop and (plot spoiler) no manifestation occurs. Our placid, nameless heroine accompanies the tediously moody Maxim around the smart hotels of Europe for ten years – over the second world war, which barely features – source of funds apparently bottomless. The relationship never equalises, with her bending over backwards not to antagonise him, the whole thing becoming as frustrating as Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester.


Summoned back to the UK on the death of Maxim’s sister – his wife’s only real friend (not that she ever attempts to make others) – and running away yet again to undertake an endless and pointless tour of the UK, the couple come across a beautiful house in the Cotswolds, which they end up buying. Finally, it looks as if they may get some structure into their lives and find their happy-ever-after. But no – characters from their past start to make an appearance and everything inevitably goes wrong.


The trouble is that, by the time the plot starts to ramp up, it would take a tenacious reader to still be invested in the characters. Added to which, and unusually for Susan Hill, the unpleasant happenings are all too predictable – unexpected for an author who is known for pulling off daring plot twists to perfection.


Conclusion? Firstly, that du Maurier’s meek, nameless character was meant to be unknowable (otherwise, she would have been given a name, a past and more context) and to try to develop her is to negate the author’s intention; secondly, that no matter how brilliant the author, other people’s stand-alone novels are best left in their box with the lid firmly shut; and thirdly, Beryl Bainbridge has an unusual conception of what makes for a ghost story.


I would be interested to hear of any other thoughts on this.

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